Monday, 6 June 2011

Books: The Dilbert Principle


The Dilbert Principle
By Scott Adams


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Ah yes - the existential dispair of the workplace. The tiny workspaces. Harsh florescent lighting. And bosses with only the most rudimentary level of intelligence (fixated it seems on making your working life as miserable as humanly possible). I mean - yes: obviously these are the perfect ingredients for comedy. But before The Office, before the IT Crowd, before Office Space [1], before Enlightened [2] - the only source of solace for the blighted office drone seeking an understanding shoulder to cry on was Scott Adam's Dilbert. 

Since it's original publication all the way back in 1989 [3] Dilbert has become an all-American success story: spawning (at last count) over three dozen compilation books [4], an animated television series [5], a video game [6], and hundreds of Dilbert-themed merchandise items [7]. And yes (here we go) this book: The Dilbert Principle. 

For the moment this is the only Dilbert book Islington has in stock - so really it's my only way in to getting to the heart of this 20th Century phenomenon. In some respects this isn't really fair: no matter what it's become Dilbert is first-and-foremost a comic strip and this book isn't really pure comics at all [8]: rather it's presents itself as an irreverent business management book with lots and lots and lots of comics interludes [9] to help make all those big chunks of text go down easy.

Full disclaimer: when I started reading this book I was not a Dilbert hater. I remember as a kid at my neighbours house they had Dilbert strips stuck to their walls which (I guess) was my first window into the hellhole lifestyle that is office existence: I mean - to me: it just seemed like fun and games (little did I know [10]) and so I always assumed that he was a true member of the comic strip pantheon: up there with Charlie Brown, The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes.

Growing up I realise that this wasn't strictly the case and - it turns out - there's a lot of Dilbert dissenters out there (which - if you're interested in: I would check out that The Trouble With Dilbert link below for the full scoop: summing up - it turns out that far from wanting to support long-suffering office workers - Scott Adams thinks it would be a good idea for CEOs to fire them: and apparently the evidence for that can be found in the strips themselves: but then I haven't read the whole thing so maybe that's wrong? I dunno [11]): and - you know - speaking as someone who would prefer living in a world where everyone was nice to each other and had enough resources to do the things they wanted to [12] - I don't much like it when I find out that there are people acting against that or whatever - but maybe I should just shut up and see what the book has to say?

Well - it starts off well with a section ("That's just like my company") that rejoices/cries out (take your pick) that the absurdity of Dilbert doesn't go far enough: "A company purchased laptop computers for employees to use while travelling. Fearing they might be stolen, the mangers came up with a clever solution: permanently attach the laptop computers to the employee's desks." This is good stuff: there's nothing that tastes so delicious as real-life tales of stupidity (especially when it's happening to someone else). And from there it bounces on to a theory of the downside of evolution that's actually (is this just me?) pretty convincing (basic conclusion: "We're a planet of nearly six billion ninnies living in a civilization that was designed by a few thousand amazingly smart deviants." - but you need to read the whole argument to get the full effect).

And - like I said: it's all lightly buttressed [13] by lots of miniature Dilbert cartoons - which whilst maybe not doing enough to make you actually laugh out loud will (at the very least) induce a small smile on your insides (which is like the polar opposite of an involuntary laugh - for Dilbert to really work you very much have to be willing to volunteer your funny bone up for service: if that makes sense? I mean - if you're not in the right mood then I don't think it's powerful enough to be able to sway you back into a good mood).  

I mean - everyone knows what a Dilbert strip is like at this point right? I don't have to try and explain to you what a Big Mac or a Coke tastes like [14]: regardless of how biting it might want to appear to be - in actuality (well) it's pretty toothless and (if we're judging from the results at least) deliberately designed to appeal to the widest possible demographic through the tried-and-tested means of not rocking the boat and generally being as inoffensive as possible (oops - sorry: am I getting mean now? Sorry).

Looking back now I'd say it was a mistake to read The Dilbert Principle like a proper book: sitting on a chair and dipping in for half-an-hour stretches at a time. With no offensive intended to Mr Adams: but to me it feels like the ideal home for his book is next to the toilet - the reader with their pants around their ankles and picking up the book and flicking through in non-chronological order - just dipping in and out for a few pages before flicking through on to another bit. I mean - at 352 pages doing through page by page by page can start to feel a bit like a drag and things can soon start to feel sluggish and although there are some good jokes here and there [15] the cumulative effect is comparable to - well - being stuck in a tiny cubicle. Which isn't helped by the fact that the start repeating some of the same cartoons over and over again (I didn't count all the instances of it - but check pages 141 and 232 and pages 207 and 216: which is the one that hurt the most - you only waited nine pages?): I mean - is it supposed to be a form of meta-irony or something? A book that lambasts the process of making inferior products only to then - well...  

I guess the thing that burns me most about the book is that although it's the perfect place to seek refuge after a bad day at the office (and there are a few oh my god bits where (if you've had the same rubbishy experiences as me: which I'm guessing we all have - there is nothing that unites humans more than their shared belief that everything is awful - right? [16]) you will nod your head in recognition (Advice to managers includes:"Exhibit an exceptionally bad personality. Be rude, negative and condescending.") - ha!) there's not much hope or promise of gold at the end of the rainbow: and the only pleasure (really) to be found is that everything is awful. I mean (as unfair as this may be) - compare Dilbert to Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts - yeah: both are down on how awful everything is: but Peanuts is more finely crafted (all over - from it's artwork to the way it's jokes land) so that the take-away is not one of drudgery or whatever: but a feeling of lightness that somehow makes your whole life seem better (which is what things are supposed to do - right? Not just - well: make loads of money for people).

So - if you're asking: I'd say forget Dilbert and try something better. Try Peanuts. Or the Perry Bible Fellowship. Or xkcd. In a sense - yeah - you could say that they're superior products - but (more than that: and as soppy as I know it sounds) they're better works of art as well: the Dilbert Principle - well for this drone: it feels just a little bit too much like work. You know?

[1] In my opinion: Jennifer Aniston's best film (but then - I was always more Team Jolie so what do I know?). 

[2] Oh my god: have you seen Enlightened? I mean - totally painful to watch in a way that I wasn't previously aware of: but still - mega-fantastic. Starring Laura Dern of Jurassic Park and Inland Empire fame! 

[3] I mean - it's so old there's even a reference to Baywatch at one point. 

[4] Which doesn't even include The Dilbert Principle. Nope - The Dilbert Principle actually belongs in a separate category of "Business books" of which there are (currently) four others (Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook, The Dilbert Future, The Joy of Work and Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel). So if you're looking for a Christmas or Birthday present for your office drone in-law: well - at least you can't complain you don't have choices. 

[5] Which I remember watching the pilot of way back when I was a teenager (yep - my teenage years were non-stop rock and roll). Although I thought the pilot was as far as they got? It seems I was mistaken: it apparently ran for two seasons. Highlights (the internet tells me) included: the episode where Wally found disciples ("The Shroud of Wally") to the one where Dilbert was accused of mass murder ("The Trial" = Kafka reference maybe? Enquiring minds want to know). 

[6] Which is actually a collection of mini-games whose lowpoints include: Enduring Fools ("Shock and hurt various "fools" with a phaser borrowed from Dogbert"), CEO Simulator ("A simulator that allows you to take the role of a CEO in charge of a business. Hire or fire employees and try to make your business bloom") and Techno Raiders ("The main game of the collection. Dilbert must search for gadgets and work his way from floor to floor in the office building, all the while trying to avoid or hurt co-workers.") - it sounds like the perfect game for anyone dealing with their barely-repressed rage and hatred for other human beings (yay!).

[7] I wish I were making these up but (apparently): There was a line of Dilbert mints which had names along the lines of Manage-mints, Accomplish-mints, Perform-mints and Improve-mints. And (yes - really) The Dilberito, a vegetarian burrito with 100% Daily Value of 23 vitamins and minerals: I mean - for goodness sake: that's sounds like a step too far even for Krusty. (From here: "Speaking more generally, Adams said "Dilbert" has reached a level of fame that makes some media people and others increasingly look for ways to criticize it. He added that Solomon seems to imply that he (Adams) wants to be viewed as a champion of office workers. "Actually," Adams laughed, "my only intention is for people to transfer their money to me."")

[8] Maybe because of that I shouldn't even be talking about it here (this is the Islington Comic Forum etc etc) but - hell - there's enough books dotted around the place here (Posy Simmonds I'm looking at you especially) that have a low-comics content but can still be counted as a comic book that I feel confident enough to allow it: that ok with you?

[9] Pun totally intended.

[10] This - I guess - would be a good point for me to regale you with my tales of soul-sucking temp jobs working for minimum wage for unpleasant ugly people. But - what the hey: if you've been there: you know what it's like: there's no need to dwell on it - right?

[11] Which leads me to think that (contrary to the image he'd like to portray) he's less Dilbert and much more Dogbert. No?

[12] Or - as Terry Eagleton so wonderfully puts it in the London Review of Books: "Marxism is about leisure, not labour. It is a project that should be eagerly supported by all those who dislike having to work. It holds that the most precious activities are those done simply for the hell of it, and that art is in this sense the paradigm of authentic human activity. It also holds that the material resources that would make such a society possible already exist in principle, but are generated in a way that compels the great majority to work as hard as our Neolithic ancestors did. We have thus made astounding progress, and no progress at all."

[13] That's the same thing as being lightly buttered - right?

[14] My original draft of this review was much more formulaic in that respect "A collection of strips and musings on a lifetime spent in an office cubicle: suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous managers and lightly quipping in the face of malevolent and arcane business strategies. Based around a successful article where he first pitched the idea of the "Dilbert Principle" ("Companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing") this is an irrelevant take on the how-to-succeed-in-business books: full of real life business anecdotes and tongue-in-cheek griping inter-spliced with classic Dilbert cartoons (which tend to provoke Marmite-like reactions - so be warned). Good for flicking through and dipping in-and-out of rather than maybe reading straight through from beginning to end - this makes for a good soothing balm to offset grim sweaty days of employment-related indignities."

[15] Notable mentions go to: "Wally would you like to be on my "TTP" project?" " What does "TTP" stand for?" " "It's short for The TTP Project." And (am I allowed to say "it's very Kafkaesque"or is that a step too far?): "Do you remember when the Company President visited? You asked why your project had been cancelled. He promised to get an answer. That task has been delegated all the way back down to me. I'd like you to craft a response for me. You'll have to put your new project on hold until this is done."

[16] Or - as Adam Kotsko put it (much better) in his review of How to Read Žižek: "In other words, the truly universal dimension is not the noble ideal, but the complaint — what unites us is not our devotion to high ideals and deep human values, but the fact that the world sucks, everywhere."
Links: The Trouble With Dilbert by Norman Solomon.

All comments welcome.

No comments: